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On The Fringe, Part Two: Robin Arnott's 'Deep Sea' and Anna Anthropy


On The Fringe is a two-part series from freelance contributor Danielle Riendeau that focuses on games designed to push beyond established boundaries in the video game industry. Read part one now!

On top of being Antichamber's audio designer, Robin Arnott is the mad scientist behind Deep Sea, which is perhaps one of the furthest "fringe" experiences – and one of the most truly intense and successful experimental games ever produced. In playing it, players don a light-and-sound-blocking WW1-era gas mask, hold onto a joystick, and descend into a terrifying, sound-only world, where the enemies – a brand of sea monster you never want to meet – are attracted to the sound of your real-life breathing.

It's sensory deprivation and physical punishment married to gameplay, and Arnott has called it a "series of uncomfortable choices." It scared the bejesus out of everyone who played it at last year's E3, so much so that Arnott was invited to speak at the prestigious (and never boring) Experimental Gameplay Workshop at this year's GDC.

"Working on Deep Sea has gotten me into a state of mind where I as an artist, am trying to interface directly with the player's body," he says. It's a direct result of his taking the project to it's full potential, and it has impacted the way he sees everything else in the world.

"Whatever you devote your mind to over an extended period of time, it's bound to influence the way you think. Deep Sea has taken me towards radical, holistic experiential design ... that thinking has worked its way into my blood, into every project I work on."

Arnott approaches design with a thoughtful, Zen-like focus. Whereas Alexander Bruce (the subject of part one) comes by his best ideas by playing with and defying player expectations, Arnott finds value in challenging his own assumptions and working toward a dedicated goal.

"I feel most creatively empowered when I realize that I have a singular goal that I can kind of focus on with an almost scientific rigor."

"I like to do that, because it focuses my work and I like to think like a scientist. I like to play scientist instead of playing artist," he says, laughing. "I think ... approaching a project with a kind of scientific focus like that – for me anyway – leaves me more open to be taught something by the project. Which can be quite thrilling."

A sound designer by trade, he came to games by way of film, which explains his holistic approach, if not his unhinged creativity. It's clear that he lives for the ability to define new possibilities for gaming, and he's happy to spread the credit for that around to other designers doing cutting-edge work.

"I think it is a new experience. I really hope it does [define a new possibility]. It's hard, because I feel like everything I see myself surrounded with – all my friends at GDC, all of the stuff that goes on at Indiecade – they're all doing the same thing, just in different ways. Desktop Dungeons is making new possibility spaces of what a roguelike can be, or what a ten-minute office gaming experience can be."

He continues: "I think [Deep Sea] is pushing boundaries of the medium itself – pushing boundaries of how you interface with the medium. Which is perhaps a little harder to quantify within the narrative of how games change over time."

Like Bruce, he also believes that working on small teams (sometimes, working by himself) makes for intense, personal work that would be impossible at a large development studio.

"I think that when you're working on a small team, or when you're working alone, even if you're not intending to make a statement, you ARE making a statement. You're making a statement about your own ideals, about your own personality.

"And working with a small group, it's not just about getting your voice into the project as a whole, it's that the project as a whole will shape itself around that voice whether you intend it to or not."

Anna Anthropy is just as interested in breaking boundaries as Bruce and Arnott. But her focus is less on the technology and more on the content and approach of her work. She's primarily interested in turning taboos on their heads, dealing in provocative themes, and encouraging others with unique perspectives to join in the fun.

Anthropy makes games the way some people write blog posts (which she also does) – prolifically. She designs games to share ideas, to raise her voice, and to react to events in her life. In fact, she started her creative life as a writer but turned to games when she realized they were just as real a possibility for her.

"When I was at school, I stumbled upon Game Maker for the first time. And suddenly, I could make games – like, games for windows – without needing to know programming, without needing to know all this stuff that seemed so alienating and byzantine to me. It was a really liberating moment. From then on, it was games all the way."

Anthropy offers up something that is almost completely lacking in the medium – a grounded, honest dedication to speaking up about things that affect her in the real world, using her medium of choice for her messages. Her most recent game, Dys4ia, was a personal game about her own experiences as a transwoman going through Hormone Replacement Therapy. She never shies away from discussing sex and gender, and much of her better-known work – like the Adult Swim commissioned Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars – has a definite edge to it. Hers is undoubtedly a unique voice, and she feels that is one of her greatest strengths as a designer.

One of my primary concerns is that I want to make games that will make women and queer people and trans people feel more comfortable existing in this culture.- Anna Anthropy

"I don't feel like I really fit in to the industry, or even the indie games community that is sort of scratching at the window, trying to get in. I feel like I'm still an outsider, but I think that makes my voice tremendously valuable. I feel like my outside perspective [gives me] the ability to do much more interesting and much more sharp stuff than I would have otherwise if I was just, like, a white dude making super Mario brothers clones, or whatever."

One of her strongest interests is in encouraging others to participate in game development – to ignore the usual tropes of the game industry and make work that is personal and interesting to them. The world of game development is changing, and she believes that Youtube-style democratization is possible.

"... Publishers in the industry no longer need to function as the "gatekeepers" of videogame creation that they've been acting as for a really long time. We have things like Game Maker and Stencyl – programs that were designed for people who are not programmers and not industry professionals."

"I want to hear more voices in videogames, really. I want to be playing games from grandmothers, I want to be playing games from teenagers, and I want to be playing games from queer teen outcasts, and stuff like that."

She adds: "One of my primary concerns is that I want to make games that will make women and queer people and trans people feel more comfortable existing in this culture."

Anthropy actively battles a culture that she calls "normally super hostile and super off-putting" with biting, uncompromising humor and a penchant for going right for the jugular.

"Some ideas are just delivered to me," she says. "Realistic Female First Person Shooter is based on an actual post from this terrible 'men's rights' forum. This guy was like, 'What if there was a realistic female first person shooter, using a woman character, she wouldn't be able to carry the heavy guns around, she'd have to flirt with the guy in order to reload the weapon!' I read this, and I was like, 'This is a game that I need to make!' It was sort of just born fully formed from this guy's terrible forum post. I felt, like, an imperative to make it. That was one of the really easy ones, actually," she says with a laugh.

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, a hate-mail-loving employee of the ACLU, and lectures in digital storytelling and game design at Northeastern University. She writes at NoHighScores, G4, Kill Screen Magazine, Logo Online and on twitter @Danielleri.

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